Farther along in
the park is a family of spotted serval cats, aloof and suspicious, intermixed
with large tortoises from the island of Aldabra in the Seychelles. "The
servals have been breeding like mad," Armitage says, "but we can't get
to the kittens quickly enough. The male eats them." The servals are fed
with culls from a chicken farm, also on the cement factory property. Nearby is
a pond full of crocodiles, somnolent and vacant-eyed in the heat.
valuable product, the old croc," Armitage explains. "We feed them with
tilapia guts from our fish farm, which is the real center and raison d'être of
the whole operation."
A series of
ponds, all kept at 29° Celsius, contains tilapia of every size up to six
pounds, although those bred for commercial use generally weigh less than a
pound. The tilapia, an excellent food fish, looks like a cross between a
bluegill and a crappie, and thrives in captivity. It's known among East African
epicures as Bamburi trout. The local water isn't right for true trout; they
will die if the oxygen level in the water falls below 35 percent. "Tilapia
can live with only 15 to 20 percent oxygen," says Armitage.
During our tour
of the tilapia tanks, we passed Armitage's Honda MT-5 motorcycle. A peacock was
preening on the seat, admiring himself in the rearview mirror. Just beneath his
gorgeous tail stood a mound of green droppings. "Makes for a bit of a mess
when you dash out after work and leap onto the bike for the ride home,"
Armitage said. "Got to think ahead in this business."
Mombasa's sprawl the country turns agricultural again: miles of coconut groves
and sugarcane interspersed with stands of cashew, mango and papaya trees and
vast hillsides spiky with pineapples. A food-lover could lead an ecstatic life
here existing only on fruit, nuts and the abundant seafood—tiny and slightly
metallic-tasting oysters, langouste and especially the huge prawns done in a
spicy style called piri piri. The fragrant mangoes, ripened on the tree and a
rich orange in color, are alone worth the price of the visit.
Now we come to
the Snake Part. Anyone suffering from herpetophobia had best skip ahead. Ever
since my son insisted on keeping a rosy-tailed boa constrictor as a pet for two
years—or until it graduated from a diet of mice to hamsters—I've been
fascinated with snakes. Bill Winter's friend, Peter Bramwell, is a snake
catcher and we had arranged a visit to his serpentarium at Mnarani, on the
south side of the Kilifi ferry crossing an hour north of Mombasa. Tucked in
among the key-oxes that clutter the ferry slip, selling everything from wood
carvings to cashews, the serpentarium is a bit scruffy in appearance, but the
snakes are in excellent shape: big-eyed boomslange and slate-gray spitting
cobras; a racy, whip-tailed green mamba the color of a lime Popsicle; squatty,
swollen puff adders and a tangle of pythons thicker than fire hoses.
Bramwell, 53, is
a wiry man with a graying spade beard and thick spectacles—the result of too
many encounters with the spitting cobra (Naja nigricollis). "His first line
of defense is to shoot for the eyes," Bramwell says. "It's a neurotoxic
venom, of course, and strongly acidic. I've tested these snakes and they can
spit 19 to 21 times before they run dry. At 18 feet, they'll spray you from
head to foot, but at 12 feet they'll hit you dead in both eyes every time.
Because they're nocturnal hunters, you have no warning of their presence.
Within four seconds after a hit, you're reeling out of the way with pain. I
always carry eyedrops—adrenaline, one in 2,000 parts—and with that you can stop
the pain in 10 minutes. Untreated, it will last five days. Unsweetened milk is
the next best treatment—the sugar in sweet milk will stick the venom to your
eyeballs. Water is less effective, but often the only recourse, and in a real
pinch, ugly as it sounds, you could have a companion urinate in your
eyes—anything to wash out the venom. It's also a good idea, when going after
spitting cobras, not to shave. That's why I have the beard. A drop of that
toxin in a shaving nick and you've had it." In deference to his wife, Jan,
Bramwell hasn't caught any poisonous snakes since 1977. That was the year he
was bitten by a black mamba, one of the most dangerous snakes in the world.
"Until then no one had survived the bite of a black mamba," he says.
"I'd been bitten by boomslange, puff adders and a green mamba and pulled
through, but when the black hit me, I thought I'd had it. It happened on a
Sunday, and I should have known better. All my bites have come on a
Bramwell was at
home that day, near Kilifi, when one of his staff reported a snake lurking near
the rabbit hutches. "It was up on the rafters and I could see it was a
black," he recalls. "I got the tongs—they're rather like the device
grocery clerks use to remove packages from high shelves, but padded so as not
to injure the snake—and got the leather-necked catching bag ready. Then I
grabbed him. Too far back. About 18 inches of his neck and head were forward of
the tongs. As I went to close the bag, my hand was too near the lip. The snake
was still on the tongs but he got his head over the edge and hit me on the
hand. Twice. I whipped him out of the bag and killed him. I recall shouting,
'I've killed you, you bastard, but you're not killing me.' "
That was about
9:30 a.m. There was no pain—"Neurotoxic venom doesn't hurt," Bramwell
says, "but the bite of a puff adder, which is hemotoxic, makes you feel
like you've got a toothache from the top of your head to the soles of your
feet." Within 20 minutes Bramwell was feeling "pins and needles" in
his extremities. Neurotoxic venom attacks the autonomic nervous system,
ultimately shutting off the victim's ability to breathe and sometimes even
stopping the heart. Realizing that their Toyota Land Cruiser was too slow for
the emergency run to the nearest hospital, Jan borrowed a neighbor's car and
drove Peter to Mombasa at 85 mph. Fortunately, a snake-bite expert from Europe
was at the hospital when Bramwell arrived. "He pulled me through," says
Peter. "Three days later, I learned that a chap in South Africa had also
survived a mamba bite. We were the first to do so." But the aftereffects
have left him weak, lethargic and without much zest for the hard physical work
he used to enjoy.
of these poisons is cumulative," he says. "My uncle, Alan Tarlton, was
a snake catcher here for years. During World War II, when the demand for
antivenin was very high, he never had fewer than 400 puff adders in his cages.
He was bitten 45 times by old Bids—that's the puffer's generic name. He claimed
that after the 43rd bite he was immune, but the 45th bite finished